L.A. Noire: The VR Case Files review – the (virtual) reality of police work
Rockstar’s period detective drama is reimagined for VR and brought to the PlayStation 4, but does it still have the same retro charm?
Originally released in 2011, L.A. Noire was justifiably praised for its landmark use of performance capture and was one of the first games to make characters look and sound human, rather than discomfiting residents of uncanny valley. It was also a beautifully observed snapshot of 1940s America, complete with casual racism, sexism, indoor smoking, and cars that handle like buses.
For The VR Case Files, which was first released on PC in late 2017, Rockstar hasn’t bothered re-engineering the whole game in virtual reality, but have instead chosen seven of the original’s cases, that show protagonist Cole Phelps’ rise from beat cop to superstar vice detective. Each one uses a mixture of immersive tasks to put you as firmly as possible in Phelps’ shoes, and while the plot may feel a bit disjointed to those unfamiliar with (or having completely forgotten) the main game, it’s highly effective.
Starting in Phelps’ office, smoking cigar in the ashtray, .45 on the desk in front of you, there’s a lot to do before you even start any police work. For one, there’s a full length mirror near the door, in which you can make Phelps’ body pop – his arm waves really working some magic – before heading off down the corridor to the war room where you can take on speedway challenges that let you drive ancient racing cars around three circuits, trying to improve your lap times.
The meat of the game is in its police procedural work, which has several distinct phases. To kick it off, you’ll usually need to examine a crime scene in search of evidence, getting around it using one of the game’s locomotion options. Those include teleportation and smooth movement, using either buttons or head tracking to determine where you look. Amusingly, you can also choose to swing your arms to walk, although that doesn’t work terribly well with PlayStation VR’s relatively puny tracking abilities.
Finding evidence means looking at absolutely everything in the vicinity, squatting down to pick things up off the ground, nosing about in bins, and taking time to look above and around you. It’s a process that’s immeasurably more interesting in VR, the sense of being in World War II-era America enhanced by myriad details, from the sounds to the architecture. L.A. may still be a massive urban sprawl, but in those days there were practically no tall buildings at all.
When you spot something, each piece of evidence you uncover is recorded in your notebook and you can act on that in various ways. The first is in following leads: find a suspect, get their address from a witness or gun shop owner, and then drive over there, assisted by your anachronistic dashboard-mounted 1940s sat nav, a convenient flag guiding you to your destination.
L.A. Noire is a wonderfully detailed simulation and driving is a great example of that. To start your journey you’ll need to climb into the car, choose an objective from your notebook, twist the key in the ignition, pull and release the handbrake, then put your hands in the 10 and two position, and off you go. Your creaky 1940s roadster barrels its way through the mercifully wide and mostly empty boulevards on your way to the next crime in progress.
That’s not to say it’s trouble free motoring however, because using the brakes on period cars are more of a suggestion than a firm instruction, and your car generally handles like a big bag of spuds. As a result, you’ll regularly find yourself inadvertently destroying dustbins, hotdog carts, fire hydrants, and other cars as you hurtle about, your siren only doing a certain amount to clear the path. There’s always the warp handle underneath the sat nav if things get too much though, beaming you straight to your next port of call.
The next step is interviewing suspects, a moment where L.A. Noire always shone. The VR Case Studies are just the same, although the process has been streamlined slightly. Now your three choices of response are good cop, bad cop, or accuse. They all need to be applied with care, and there are frequent moments where your intention isn’t quite played out in what Phelps says on your behalf, but it’s rarely terminal and adds to the frisson of risk that permeates these encounters.
Questioning a suspect involves looking at the notes you made at the crime scene, each piece of evidence leading to its own line of questioning. You also need to pay careful attention to your interviewee’s facial expressions to look for signs of deceit or nervousness as they make a statement. It’s a surprisingly realistic-feeling process, and the excellent voice and physical acting elevate the experience above the overwhelming majority of in-game interactions, VR making the whole thing especially immersive.
The final part of your work as detective is getting into fights. If the suspect is unarmed that means putting up your dukes and punching him into submission. Using your hands to block and ducking out of the way of incoming blows works exactly as it should, while snapping out return punches is extremely satisfying, your suspect soon enough landing on the floor, mildly concussed, and ready to be packed off in the meat wagon.
If the criminals have guns, you’ll be reaching for your shotgun or trusty revolver. Firefights are loud and gory, and having to reload your weapons in a semi-realistic fashion adds to the sense of period. Putting ammo into your .45 involves flicking open the cylinder, shaking out spent bullet casings, then inserting a new clip and clicking it shut. For shotguns you’ll need to put in each cartridge individually before cocking it with the pump action.
Shooting is just as involved, with finding cover essential to success. In VR the feeling of hunching behind a counter or column as chunks get blown out of it by incoming rounds gives a real sense of vulnerability – you won’t need your partner to tell you to keep your head down. Returning fire is fraught with authentic levels of inaccuracy but blowing a sufficient number of holes in whichever bad guy is resisting arrest is not as hard as it first seems.
The seven case files are over all too soon but while they last, the sense of taking part in police work in a historical recreation of 1940 Los Angeles is hugely impressive and it benefits from Rockstar’s usual levels of polish and attention to detail. The port to PlayStation VR has nixed some of the roomscale interactions previously possible on HTC Vive, but having to press square to squat rather than doing it in real life is a small price to pay for such a rich and involving recreation.
L.A. Noire: The VR Case Files review summary
In Short: An immersive and engrossing trip to the seedy underbelly of World War II era Los Angeles, the police procedural work enhanced enormously by being in virtual reality.
Pros: Interesting and disparate cases to investigate, superb sense of place and time, realistic driving, fighting, and gun battles.
Cons: The discrete nature of the case files leaves the plot feeling fragmented, and some fiddly interactions can be a pain using the Move controllers.
Formats: PlayStation VR (reviewed), HTC Vive, and Oculus Rift
Developer: Rockstar Games
Publisher: Videogames Deluxe and Rockstar Games
Release Date: 24th September 2019
Age Rating: 18
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